We’ve all heard the phrase catch 22, but I was oblivious to it origins until college. For those of you who have not become acquainted with the pre-M*A*S*H melancholy war novel read by high school students the world over, the phrase catch 22 was coined by Joseph Heller in his book by the same title. My introduction to the book is rather unique in my reading experience.
You see, when I was just starting out in my career I had a bit of a drive to the office. Well, quite a substantial drive really. So, to break up the monotony of the country roads and drizzly mornings I listened to podcasts and audio books. My local library had a decidedly poor selection of audio books, but among them was Heller’s gem. Aside from being a quirky, irreverent satire of military bureaucracy, what made this a stand out book for me was the reading by Jay O. Sanders. He delivers the story in a way that kept my attention in much the same way my father did. Through the use of unique voices for each character. He even makes some of the characters very nearly incomprehensible. Specifically the character Orr, who happens to be Yosarian (the main character)’s tentmate for much of the novel. Sanders’ delivery of Orr’s ridiculous lines and maniacal laughter is hilarious. Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed the audiobook.
So, it was with great apprehension that started watching the movie on Netflix. This is not to be confused with the Italian art film of the same name. The film was released in 1970, oddly enough the very same year its Korean War counterpart M*A*S*H was released. What I thought to be the strangest thing about the movie was its rather eclectic cast. Notables include Art Garfunkle, Martin Sheen, John Voight, and even Orson Welles and Bob Newhart. Bob was just about perfect for the role of Maj. Major Major Major. Boy that guy’s father hated him.
Yosarian is played by Alan Arkin, who was in a bunch of movies you’ve probably never heard of up until he played Bill in Edward Scissorhands and more recently he was the grandpa in Little Miss Sunshine which seems to have led him to a few more recognizable roles. At any rate in this particular role I felt he was a bit of a non-entity. Yosarian is by no means a brash, in-your-face character. He is a very subtle man that has an uncanny ability to incite rage and confusion in everyone around him. While there was plenty of rage and confusion, I never felt Arkin was the root cause, with the possible exception of the moaning scene featuring the lovely Susanne Benton. No, it’s not what you think. Though there is plenty of that on leave in Italy.
Similarly Charles Grodin of Beethoven fame, you remember that great big dog that got into so much trouble, just did not bring the role of Aarfy alive in the way Sanders did. Grodin hit the aloofness pretty well, but the crazy just didn’t come through. Perhaps he would have been better with more screen time. In a chaotic and interweaving storyline such as Catch-22 seems much of the development is left out. But instead of oversimplifying the story, the characters simply behave in a manner deemed more odd by its lack of explanation. The one man, besides Newhart in his minor role, who absolutely nails his character is John Voight. Voight takes on the role of Milo Minderbinder and brings the conniving little bastard to life. He successfully transforms Milo from the quirky little kid-brother to an industry tycoon in a way that Sanders missed entirely. In the audiobook I often mixed up Orr and Milo because of their similar voices and their annoying nonsensical intrusions into Yosarians life. But Voight takes Milo from the height of absurdity to the darkest depths of Objectivism gone a-rye all the while passing off his actions as communistic altruism. An interesting comparison can be found in the scene in which Milo is bombing his own airfield. Sanders played the scene with cold and calculated detachment. He sounded like he was telling his grand kids how to hoe a garden. Voight similarly played the scene very deadpan. But in the movie the inclusion of Colonel Cathcart. While Yosarians displeasure with the Colonel comes to a dramatic head it tramples all over Voight’s efforts. You can see what I mean right here.
But in the end it comes down to a comparison of the book and the movie.
Following the path of countless films based on literature, Catch-22 misses the mark. On its own it is a funny and generally enjoyable movie that doesn’t quite make its social commentary clear. Does it attack the senseless bureaucracy now synonymous with the book’s title? Yes, in the way a kitten attacks string. You can see what it’s getting at but it’s not making much progress. Does it criticize war profiteering and the over zealous pursuit of the almighty dollar with a total disregard for life and liberty? More or less. But there are so many things going on the point is not brought to the forefront.
In a fit of irony the loss of large amounts of character development led the movie to become too chaotic to truly portray the chaoticness of the novel. The characters stumble along as Yosarian tries harder and harder to stay on the ground and out of harm’s way. The true insanity of his situation is lost. While much of the problem lies in a lack of development, it can also be contributed to Voight. His steady and even development detracts from the insanity even as he contributes to it.
So if want the full Josheph Heller experience get your hands on the unabridged audiobook and enjoy the voice of Jay O. Sanders.